August 30, 2020

The Salt of the Earth

What comes, will go. What is found, will be lost again. But what you are is beyond coming and going and beyond description. You are it.

~ Rumi (Gialal al-Din Rumi), Makatib (The Letters)

In a popular 1976 book, To Have or to Be?, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode and the being mode. The former focuses on material abundance and possessions, and the domination of nature and humans. It is the source of most, if not all, conflicts. The latter is based on the pleasure of spontaneous and voluntary sharing. “In the having mode,” he wrote, “one’s happiness lies in one’s superiority over others, in one’s power, and in the last analysis, in one’s capacity to conquer, rob, kill. In the being mode it lies in loving, sharing, giving.” The author also pointed out how this dichotomy of being and having is present even when it comes to love. In today’s world, he argued, there is an infatuation with having love. This is totally wrong. Let’s follow his reasoning:
During courtship neither person is yet sure of the other, but each tries to win the other. Both are alive, attractive, interesting, even beautiful — inasmuch as aliveness always makes a face beautiful. Neither yet has the other; hence each one’s energy is directed to being, i.e., to giving to and stimulating the other. With the act of marriage, the situation frequently changes fundamentally. The marriage contract gives each partner the exclusive possession of the other’s body, feelings, and care. Nobody has to be won over any more, because love has become something one has, a property. The two ceases to make the effort to be lovable and to produce love, hence they become boring, and hence their beauty disappears. They are disappointed and puzzled. Are they not the same persons anymore? Did they make a mistake in the first place? Each usually seeks the cause of the change in the other and feels defrauded. What they do not see is that they no longer are the same people they were when they were in love with each other; that the error that one can have love has led them to cease loving. Now, instead of loving each other, they settle for owning together what they have: money, social standing, a home, children. Thus, in some cases, the marriage initiated on the basis of love becomes transformed into a friendly ownership, a corporation in which the two egotisms are pooled into one: that of the “family.”

In a nutshell, love—along with life itself—is about being, not about having.

The quote by Rumi is roughly in the same spirit as Fromm’s reasoning. Yes, it’s what you are that matters. It’s not what comes at you but how you face it that matters, neither is it what you lose. Our attitude is everything. But our attitude is nothing more or less than a combination of our thinking, our emotions, and our way of viewing things, events, and circumstances around us. In other words, it’s about what we are, not what we have (and can therefore lose). It’s about our inner self, namely who we are on the inside. It’s as simple as that. And yet so hard to understand—as with any great little truth—in all its possible implications, and, above all, so complicated to fully master in everyday life.

As a matter of fact, what the above quote suggests applies to very few wise and high-minded people. Not by chance the famous Latin motto “Omnia mea mecum porto” (All that is mine I carry with me) was ascribed by Cicero to Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages of Greece—he is said to make the statement during the flight from his hometown, with the apparent meaning that his goods and treasures are those of character traits and wisdom, as opposed to material possessions, social status, etc. Yet, this is not a good reason to give up. Wise and virtuous people have always been a minority, but minorities are the salt of the Earth, they inspire other humans to make the world a better place. They show children and youth the way of personal growth and encourage them to be self-confident. They teach them that they can do great and noble things, and accomplish even the most far-reaching goals.

But what I love most about Rumi’s quote is its last part: “What you are is […] beyond description. You are it.” Now he’s taking the leap. No parachute. To have something is relatively easy, who and what we are is a far more complicated matter, at least for the vast majority of human beings, namely those who haven’t spent years researching the meaning of life in the halls of academia, in the solitude of the desert or the privacy of the soul. At a closer look, are we sure the “being mode” is for all of us? Who can afford to take the leap towards the holy grail of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton, know thyself) – one of the Delphic maxims that was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at the ancient Greek city of Delphi? Naturally wise people and profound believers of all faiths are at an advantage compared to atheists, agnostics, lukewarm believers, and superficial people in general, but how many of them are there? In the light of all the above considerations, I think it is reasonable to say that, spiritually speaking, the having mode—contrary to appearances—is more “democratic” than the being mode, which is per se an aristocratic way of life, that is, not for everyone, just for some. But, as I said above, paraphrasing the immortal Sermon on the Mount, minorities are the salt of the Earth, the light of the world…